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8 Ways to Stop Losing Time & Money in Your Law Practice

An Introduction to Lean in the Practice of Law

By Karen Dunn Skinner and David Skinner

Do routine tasks take too long or seem too complicated in your practice?


Do you need to accomplish more work in a day, without spending as long at the office?


Are you convinced there must be a better way to run a law practice than “the way we’ve always done it”?

If you find yourself asking how you can produce the same result for your clients in fewer steps, in less time, or at a lower cost, you’re actually thinking about process improvement. Most importantly, you’re thinking about efficiency.

In this and the next three articles in our series, 8 Ways to Stop Losing Time & Money in Your Law Practice, you are going to learn how to use one of the most important tools for increasing the efficiency of your law practice: The Eight Wastes.

What’s efficiency?

Efficiency is having:

  • the right people

  • doing the right work

  • at the right time and the right cost

  • using the right tools and technologies.

We use a combination of strategies to help lawyers increase their efficiency but the foundation of our methodology is Lean. Lean is an approach to process excellence based on the Toyota Production System, Toyota’s extraordinarily successful approach to innovation and continuous improvement. A researcher working for James Womack coined the term “Lean” in the late 1980s. The primary book on it, Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, came out in 1996.

According to Womack and Jones, Lean sets five business goals:

  1. Determine what adds value from the client’s perspective

  2. Identify all the steps you take to deliver that value (the value stream)

  3. Create flow across the value-adding steps

  4. Deliver to clients just in time, on their timetable (pull)

  5. Continuously improve by eliminating waste in the process

Lean’s focus on increasing the speed and quality of your service (adding value), while reducing or eliminating the steps that waste time and effort (reducing waste), makes it a powerful methodology for improving efficiency in legal service delivery. We’ve spent more than a decade adapting Lean concepts to the practice of law. We speak on it regularly and write about it often in the Tips of the Week on our Lean Law Firm blog and our many other publications. If some parts of this article sound familiar to you, you’ve probably seen our writing before!

In the legal context, the five goals of Lean can be applied to make legal work more efficient and effective, from both the client’s and the firm’s perspective. The overriding objective is to add value and eliminate waste.

What’s Value?

In Lean, clients determine value. You must look at your work from your client’s perspective.

Your work is only valuable if it meets three criteria:

  1. It moves the matter forward

  2. Your client wants it and is willing to pay for it, and

  3. You do it right the first time.

Any task, activity, or service that fails to meet all three of these criteria is waste. It does not add value to your clients and should be minimized, if not entirely eliminated. 

The first criterion is relatively easy to satisfy. Work on a legal task almost always moves the matter forward. If it doesn’t, you shouldn’t be doing it!

The second criterion requires a little introspection. Do your clients actually want all the work you’re doing on a file? If they knew what you were doing, would they be happy to pay you for it? Be honest. Do they need the answers to every possible contingency, or only the most likely ones? 

Do they want to pay for 37 rounds of drafting on a contract (true story)? Do they want to pay for your associates to start every motion from scratch on a legal pad, rather than from a good template or precedent (another true story)? As for the third criterion, lawyers are perfectionists. It’s almost by exception that our work is done right the very first time. We edit mercilessly. Some of this undoubtedly adds value: we want to make sure our clients are completely protected and our arguments succeed in court. However, a huge amount is waste. Even the way we train students and juniors can be wasteful. We know we’re going to revise their work at least once. Training them may add value to the firm eventually, but should we be asking clients to pay for it?

To add value, your work has to meet all three criteria. Anything that fails EVEN ONE of them is a waste, but don’t despair. Every waste that you identify is an opportunity for improvement.

What’s Waste?

Everything that doesn’t add value is waste. That seems straightforward, but for many lawyers, waste is surprisingly hard to see. Why? Because we are so used to doing things in our own particular way, it can be hard to see the inefficiencies—the waste—in our own work. It’s just “our normal.”

One of the most useful tools in the Lean toolkit is DOWNTIME, an easy-to-use mnemonic for identifying the waste in work.

Each letter stands for a different category of waste:

  1. Defects

  2. Over-production

  3. Waiting

  4. Non-utilized talent

  5. Transportation

  6. Inventory

  7. Motion

  8. Extra Processing

We use DOWNTIME in every process improvement project we do. You can use it yourself to identify waste in everything you do, all of the time. It’s easy. You don’t need a software platform or any special training. All you need is a critical eye. As we tell our clients, once you’ve learned to spot waste, you will never look at your own work the same way again.

In our next article, we’re going to do a deep dive into the first four wastes (DOWN). In our third article, we’ll look at the last four (TIME). Then, in the final article in this series, we’ll provide you with step-by-step instructions for leading a waste-finding exercise in your practice, and additional case studies to inspire you to improve your efficiency by getting the right people doing the right work in your practice.

But first, we want to prime you to start identifying the waste in your own work. Here’s a very quick description of each of the DOWNTIME categories of waste.

Defects include any work that requires correction or rework because it wasn’t done properly the first time, whether by error or omission. It could be anything from a simple typo to missing a filing deadline to making a serious error in the law.

Over-production refers to doing more of something or doing it earlier or faster than required. It includes obvious examples like printing more hard copies than you need or copying too many people on an email, and less obvious things like doing your own work ahead of time when you could be helping someone else on an urgent matter.

Waiting is any wasted time when people, equipment, documentation, or information is idle or delayed. It includes interruptions, time spent getting up to speed when switching between files or tasks, and all the time you spend every day waiting for things to happen or people to get back to you.

Non-utilized talent is the misallocation of human capital. It’s having the wrong person doing a task—whether they’re over-qualified or under-qualified—and failing to take advantage of the full potential of everyone on your team.

Transportation refers to the unnecessary movement of documents, information, or materials. It often manifests as unnecessary circulation of hard copies or movement of information for approvals.

Inventory looks a little different in law than it might in industry. Rather than excess widgets, think of unbilled work in progress, files stacked on your desk awaiting your attention, documents needing signatures, unanswered emails in your inbox, and more mundane things like oversupplies of stationery.

Motion refers to any unnecessary physical displacement of people. It includes extra steps to access supplies, information, or printers (yet another true story!), unnecessary in-person meetings, and little things like too many keystrokes to find a file or accomplish a task on your computer. 

Extra processing is giving your client Ferrari-level service when she only needs a Ford. It includes researching every possible “just-in-case” scenario, when your client only wanted the most likely, or answering questions you haven’t actually been asked.

In upcoming articles, we’ll give you real examples of wastes we’ve identified in our clients’ practices, as well as tips for how to identify them in your own practice. We’ll also share how other firms and law departments have used DOWNTIME to increase their efficiency by reducing or eliminating waste.

Pro Tip: You can use DOWNTIME to improve your legal processes, but when you’re starting out, we recommend you start with the business and administrative processes that support your practice. Because these are common across your organization, the efficiency gains you make with them will benefit everyone touched by those business and administrative processes.

That’s the beauty of Legal Process Improvement. It gives you a set of tools you can use to look deeper into how you deliver your legal services from start to finish, including your business, administrative, and legal processes.


About the Authors

Karen Dunn Skinner and David Skinner help lawyers earn more from their practices without working as hard. They believe every lawyer deserves a successful practice and the freedom to enjoy that success.

Together, they founded Gimbal Lean Practice Management Advisors after practicing law for more than 20 years in Canada and Europe. They’re the exclusive Global Advisors on Legal Process Improvement to the International Institute of Legal Project Management, and Karen sits on the IILPM’s Global Advisory Council.

Karen and David are global leaders in the application of Lean to the legal profession. They write and speak regularly, facilitate legal process improvement projects, and have taught Gimbal’s proven LeanLegal® approach to thousands of legal professionals around the world.

They combine their deep understanding of the legal industry with their training in Lean Six Sigma to provide practical solutions to the competitive and budgetary pressures on practitioners and clients alike.

Karen and David live in Montreal

So the next time you say to yourself, “there MUST be a better way to do this,” use DOWNTIME. See if you can identify the waste that’s getting in your way.

Come back next time for an in-depth look at the first four wastes: Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, and Non-utilized talent. Spoiler alert: one of them is the biggest source of inefficiency in the legal profession.

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